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Speaking up as a woman of colour in the workplace

Marketing executive, Faria Ali, discusses a recent event she attended on the issue of women of colour navigating the workplace

Posted on 28 November 2019

“What I always wanted is to make a change” 

Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected MP, said these words at the inspirational ‘Trailblazers: Women Leading The Way’ event which I attended on 15 October at EartH in Hackney. The event was organised by gal-dem and Intelligence Squared.
The panel discussion tackled the subject of women of colour who are trying to prosper in a world of work where they are faced with barriers due to their race and gender.  
At the event I had the pleasure of experiencing some inspirational discussion coming from women who have ‘made it’ in the media, politics and creative writing fields. I am a young woman of colour in a professional capacity – and a noticeable Muslim woman at that.
I feel I am often balancing the stereotypes put on me and sometimes I feel that I have to speak up more, be a bit louder so I am not seen as a ‘typical’ passive Muslim South Asian woman. British journalist and political activist, Ash Sarkar, spoke on the advice her mother would give to her: “as a woman of colour you have to be twice as good to get half as much.” 
In previous workplaces, the stereotypes put on me stemmed from being a visible Muslim woman.  I was confronted with questions around whether I was forced to wear the hijab and what the  solutions are to tackle Islamic extremism. Being younger and more naïve I felt obliged to answer and ‘defend’ my identity – however, I now know that workplaces shouldn’t allow for such one-sided bigoted opinions.
Being a woman of colour makes you more prone to questioning yourself because of conversations in which you are expected to be the subordinate. In my current workplace, I am happy to have inclusive conversations in which my colleagues are understanding, interested and are protective of my identity. It’s very refreshing to have found my feet in such a place where women of colour have reached the top.
My respected colleagues such as Kiran Daurka and Sapna Malik are both women I can relate to, who have smashed stereotypes to become leaders in their fields of law.  
Imposter syndrome is an unfounded fear that it’s only a matter of time until you’re called out for being a fraud and it’s an inherent feeling of you not deserving the achievements you have created for yourself. Women of colour can feel more vulnerable in the workplace and more conscious of their mistakes as we feel the need to prove ourselves as being worthy.
I have experienced imposter syndrome at work in meetings with senior stakeholders and especially in front of my male colleagues - I previously felt that I would be questioned for my place. The event highlighted to me that my insecurities are a shared feeling and that I can overcome self-doubt within a supportive and inclusive environment. 
Hearing from Diane Abbott, journalist Yomi Adegoke and Ash Sarkar amongst the other panellists was a great opportunity to see the journey of how women who look ‘more like me’ got to the top of their respective careers.  It’s not always easy being in a challenging professional environment and not knowing or seeing anyone at the top who looks like you.
Yomi Adegoke spoke on the recruitment process and this struck a similar chord. As a woman of colour, you can’t just ‘fit in’ – you may have the grades, experience for the job but your foreign name already stands out from the get-go and can unwillingly create an unconscious bias. 

Some important take-aways from the event  

  • Drop the fear of failure – you're paving the way for many other women in your position. You will learn more from adversity and failure than continued success. 
  • Be your authentic self – an important question posed by an audience member was ‘how do I as a young black professional act like myself without allowing people to stereotype me’. Diane Abbott responded that no one in the workplace deserves to know you like your friends outside of work do. Stay true to yourself but keep things professional. 
  • You may wrongly feel as a woman of colour that you don’t deserve your position, or you will never get to the top – but creating that space for young women to follow will only be done by battling that fear and smashing those stereotypes. 
Attending this event encouraged me to write this blog – you will realise that that the trailblazers among you are already there, you just have to find them within!